Ryukyuan music

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Ryukyuan music (琉球音楽 Ryūkyū ongaku?), or Okinawan music (沖縄音楽 Okinawa ongaku?), is the music of the Ryukyu Islands, largely made up of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.


The two main styles of traditional Ryukyuan music are koten (classical) and min'yō (popular). The texture is essentially heterophonic using a single melodic line. Pitched accompaniment instruments each play a simultaneous variation on the vocal line.[1][2][3]

Ryukyuan classical music[edit]


Ryukyuan classical music (琉球古典音楽 ryūkyū koten ongaku?) is a genre of Ryukyuan music. The term refers to the court music of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Uzagaku (御座楽?) is the traditional chamber music of the royal palace of the Ryūkyū Kingdom.

Min'yō and shima uta[edit]

Shima uta (島唄?), literally "island songs", is a common term for min'yō, folk songs of the Ryukyu Islands (as well as Japan). It was originally used by the people of the Amami Islands, spreading to other areas of the Ryukyu Islands.[4] Shima uta are generally accompanied by one (or more) sanshin.

Yunta (ユンタ?) is a genre of folk song originating in the Yaeyama Islands.[5] The verses and choruses of the song are sung alternately by the men and the women. The word origin of yunta is said to be from yumi uta (読み歌 "reading song"?) or yui uta (結い歌 "tying/knotting song"?)[6]

The terms ondo and bushi can also be used to describe shima uta, however songs named without these clarifiers are more common. Eisā and kachāshī are Ryukyuan dances with specific music styles that accompany them.


Warabe uta (童歌?) is a general term for nursery rhymes and children's songs.

New folk songs[edit]

"New min'yō" (新作の民謡 shinsaku no min'yō?), composed in the style of traditional Ryukyuan min'yō, have been written by several contemporary Ryukyuan folk musicians such as Rinshō Kadekaru, Sadao China (知名定男?), Shōkichi Kina, Seijin Noborikawa (登川誠仁?) and Tsuneo Fukuhara (普久原恒勇?). These songs are often heard in contemporary pop music arrangements. Haisai ojisan (ハイサイおじさん?), with music and lyrics by Shōkichi Kina, is typical of this genre.

Okinawa pop[edit]

The music of the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa in particular, came under the influence of American rock music beginning with the end of World War II. Many musicians began to blend the Okinawan folk music style and native instruments with those of American popular and rock music.


The instrument that defines Ryukyuan music is the sanshin. It is a three-stringed lute, very similar to the sanxian and a precursor to the shamisen. The body is covered in snake skin and it is plucked with a plectrum worn on the index finger.

Ryukyuan folk music is often accompanied by various taiko drums such as shime-daiko (締太鼓?), hira-daiko (平太鼓?), and pāranku (パーランク?). Pāranku, a small hand-held drum about the size of a tambourine, is often used in eisā dancing.

Other percussion instruments such as sanba (三板?), yotsutake (四つ竹?) and hyoshigi (拍子木?) can often be heard in Ryukyuan music. Sanba are three small, flat pieces of wood or plastic that are used to make rapid clicking sounds, similar to castanets. Yotsutake are two sets of rectangular bamboo strips tied together, one set held in each hand, clapped together on the strong beat of the music. Traditionally they have been used in Ryukyuan classical music, but recently they have been used in eisā dancing.[7]

A group of singers called a hayashi (囃子?) often accompanies folk music, singing the chorus or interjecting shouts called kakegoe (掛け声?). Also finger whistling called yubi-bue (指笛?) is common in kachāshī and eisā dance tunes.

Additional instruments are often used in Ryukyuan classical music, and sometimes incorporated in folk music:[8]

  • Kutu ( クトゥ?) – a Ryukyu version of the koto; often called Ryūkyū kutu (琉球箏?) or Uchinā kutu (沖縄箏?)
  • Kūchō (胡弓 くーちょー?) – a Ryukyu version of the kokyū
  • Fue (?) – a Ryukyuan transverse flute; also called "fansō" (ファンソウ) or ryūteki (琉笛?)


The following is described in terms used in Western disciplines of music.

Music from the Ryukyu Islands uses tonal structure that is different in music from the main islands of Japan, in particular the intervalic content of the scales used.

The chief pentatonic scale used in mainland Japan, for example, uses scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, also known as Do, Re, Mi, So, and La in the Kodály system of solfeggio. This structure avoids half step intervals by eliminating the fourth and seventh scale degrees.

In contrast, music from the Ryukyu Islands is abundant in the half steps. Common structures used in Ryukyuan music are a pentatonic scale utilizing scale degrees 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, or Do, Mi, Fa, So, Ti, or a hexatonic scale with the addition of the second scale degree, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, or Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, Ti. Half steps occur between the third and fourth (Mi and Fa), and also the seventh and first (Ti and Do) scale degrees. In particular, the interval from 7 to 1, or Ti to Do is very common. A folk tune can often be recognized as being Ryukyuan by noting the presence of this interval.

Notable Ryukyuan music[edit]

Title Local name Notes
"Tinsagu nu hana"
"Chinsagu nu hana"
("Tensagu no hana")
"The Balsam Flowers"; a warabe uta; Okinawan children will squeeze the sap from balsam flowers to stain their fingernails. The lyrics of the song are Confucian teachings. Of the six verses, the first three relate to filial piety, while the latter three refer to respecting one's body and one's goals.
Each verse has exactly the same number notes using language and meter devices that are solely Ryukyuan. The English translation tells of the content of the verses but fails to convey the precision and the beauty of the song:

"Just as my fingernails are stained with the pigment from balsam flowers, my heart is painted with the teachings of my parents.
Although the stars in the sky are countable, the teachings of my parents are not.
Just as ships that run in the night are guided to safety by the North star, I am guided by my parents who gave birth to me and watch over me.
There's no point in possessing magnificent jewelry if you don't maintain it; people who maintain their bodies will live life wonderfully.
The desires of the person who lives sincerely will always run true and as a result she will prosper.
You can do anything if you try, but you can't if you don't."

"Asadoyā yunta"
"Asadoya yunta"
"Song of Asadoyā"; Originating at Taketomi in the Yaeyama Islands,[9] this is one of the most recognized and often performed Ryukyuan folk songs.[10]
"Tanchamē" 谷茶前 a song originating in the village of Tancha in Onna, Okinawa
"Tōshin dōi" 唐船ドーイ
"A Chinese Ship Is Coming"; The most famous kachāshī dance song, it is often performed as the last song of a Ryukyuan folk music show.[9]
ナークニー a lyrical song expressing deep longing
"Haisai ojisan" ハイサイおじさん a "new min'yō", music and lyrics by Shoukichi Kina
"Bye-bye Okinawa" バイバイ沖縄 music and lyrics by Sadao China
"Akata Sun dunchi"
"Akata Sundunchi"
赤田首里殿内 "Inside Akata Shrine in Shuri"
"Tsuki nu kaisha"
"Chiki nu kaisha"
月ぬ美しゃ "The Moon is Beautiful"; a song from the Yaeyama Islands
"Bashōfu" 芭蕉布 Bashōfu is Ryukyuan banana cloth.
嘉手久 a courtship kachāshī dance song
"Shichi-gwachi eisā" 七月エイサー an eisā dance song
"Warabi-gami" 童神 a lullaby
"Shima nu hito" 島ぬ女 "Island Woman"
"Nishinjō bushi" 西武門節 written in 1933 by Matsuo Kawata (川田松夫?)[9]
"Sai-sai bushi" さいさい節
a drinking song originally from Okinoerabujima in the Amami Islands; "Sai" is the Amami word for sake.[11]
"Irabu tōgani" 伊良部とーがに a song from Irabu in the Miyako Islands
"Kagiyadefū bushi"
"Kagiyadefuu bushi"
"Kajadifū bushi"
かぎやで風節 a classical (koten) Ryukyuan dance song; Also called "Gojin fū" (御前風?), it was played before Ryukyuan kings during the Shuri dynasty.[12]
"Jin jin"
"Jing jing"
ジンジン a warabe uta; The title means "firefly"; the lyrics implore the firefly to "come down and drink". Shoukichi Kina and Champloose's version of this song, with slide guitar by Ry Cooder, was a minor hit in British discos. Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman released a 2000 collaboration album by the same title that is a collection of various Ryukyuan songs or nursery rhymes. Their song "Jin Jin" is track 6 on this album.
"Tenyō bushi" てんよー節 A common song involving red and white flags played at the Obon Festival.
"Nada Sōsō" 涙そうそう "Great Tears Are Spilling", 2000 single with music by Begin, lyrics by Ryoko Moriyama
"Hana – Subete no hito no kokoro ni hana wo" 花~すべての人の心に花を~ music and lyrics by Shoukichi Kina
  • "Futami Jouwa"
  • "Ninjoubushi"
  • "Kudaka"

Ryukyuan musicians and musical ensembles[edit]




The traditional Okinawan song "Tinsagu nu Hana"

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  1. ^ Malm, William P. (1959). Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company. p. 245. ISBN 0-8048-0308-0. 
  2. ^ Tokita, A. & D. Hughes (2008). "The Music of Ryukyu (ch.13, by Robin Thompson)". The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Farnham, UK: Ashgate. p. 446. ISBN 978-0-7546-5699-9. 
  3. ^ Gillan, Matthew (2012). Songs from the Edge of Japan: Music-Making in Yaeyama and Okinawa. Farnham, UK: Ashgate. p. 238. ISBN 978-1-4094-2404-8. 
  4. ^ Shimauta: Okinawa Daihyakka 沖縄大百科
  5. ^ Gillan, Matthew (2012). Songs from the Edge of Japan: Music-Making in Yaeyama and Okinawa. Farnham, UK: Ashgate. p. 238. ISBN 978-1-4094-2404-8. 
  6. ^ Yunta: Okinawa Daihyakka 沖縄大百科
  7. ^ Yotsutake: Okinawa Daihyakka 沖縄大百科 (Japanese)
  8. ^ Tokita, A. & D. Hughes (2008). "The Music of Ryukyu (ch.13, by Robin Thompson)". The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Farnham, UK: Ashgate. p. 446. ISBN 978-0-7546-5699-9. 
  9. ^ a b c 西角井, 正大 (1972, 1990). Folk Songs of Okinawa (沖縄の民謡 Okinawa no minyō) (CD booklet). Tokyo, Japan: Victor Musical Industries. 
  10. ^ Ōshiro, Manabu (1991). Music of Yaeyama and Miyako (南海の音楽・八重山・宮古 Nankai no ongaku – Yaeyama, Miyako) (CD booklet). Tokyo, Japan: King Record Company. 
  11. ^ Ogawa, Hisao (1991). Music of Amami (南海の音楽・奄美 Nankai no ongaku – Amami) (CD booklet). Tokyo, Japan: King Record Company. 
  12. ^ Kaneshiro, Atsumi (1991). Music of Okinawa (南海の音楽・沖縄 Nankai no ongaku – Okinawa) (CD booklet). Tokyo, Japan: King Record Company. 

External links[edit]